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Book 2, Lesson 8
The Hebrew Drink Shekar

V. SHEKAR IN VERSES GIVING THE LAW: COMMON MAN

The outline in this lesson continues from Lesson 7.

In Deuteronomy 14:22 – 27, God gives the law about the tithe. He tells the people to bring Him the tithe and then to eat a meal before Him at harvest time. In verse 26 He blesses the use of shekar as a drink at this feast. Since shekar is usually intoxicating, what does God mean? Is He suddenly approving of alcoholic drink? Is Deuteronomy 14:26, as some claim, the only verse in the Bible that clearly tells man to rejoice before God while drinking alcoholic wine?

The Annual Tithe

Dr. Teachout translates Deuteronomy 14:22 – 27:

     You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow which comes out of the field 
     every year. And you shall eat in the presence of Yahweh your God, at the place where
     He chooses to establish His name, the tithe of your threshed grain, your grape juice
     (tirosh) your fresh oil, and the firstborn of your herd and your flock, in order that you
     may learn to fear Yahweh your God always. 
     And if the distance is so great for you that you are not able to bring the tithe, since the
     place where Yahweh your God chooses to set His name is too far away from you when
     Yahweh your God blesses you, then you shall exchange it for money, and bind the 
     money in your hand and go to the place which Yahweh your God chooses. 
     And you may spend the money for whatever your heart desires, for oxen, or sheep, or
     satisfying grape juice (yayin and shekar) or whatever your heart desires; and there you
     shall eat in the presence of Yahweh your God and rejoice, you and your household. 
     Also you shall not neglect the Levite who is in your town for he has no portion or 
     inheritance among you. 1

God called all Israel to gather in His presence after the harvest. He instructed the people to bring a tenth part of their newly threshed grain, their grape juice, and their fresh oil to the place He chose. He told them also to bring the firstborn animals from their herds and flocks. He said, “You shall eat in the presence of your God and rejoice with your family.”

The annual harvest feast before God was a reminder to all the people that they belonged to Him and that He had given them the land.

Exodus 22:29, 23:16, and Deuteronomy 12:17 – 19 also mention this yearly feast. 2 These verses, like Deuteronomy 14 where we find the most complete picture, make it plain that the tithe was a gift from the recent harvest.

The Support of the Levites and Priests

If we read Deuteronomy 14:22 – 27 without thinking it through, we get the idea that the people ate the whole tithe at this one feast. But the harvest of grain, juice and oil was enough to supply the needs of the whole nation of Israel until harvest time the next year. One-tenth of the harvest had to be a huge amount of food. God gave the tithe to the Levites. It was their inheritance and their food supply.

Of the twelve tribes of Israel, the tribe of Levi was the priestly tribe. The Levites were responsible for the care of the tabernacle. They taught the law and I Chronicles 26:29 says they were officers or overseers and judges. Aaron, the high priest, was also from the tribe of Levi.

In Numbers 18:21 – 32, God explains His plan for the tithe. First the Levites were to receive the tithes the people brought in. Next, they in turn would offer a tenth of all that they had been given. Their tithe went to Aaron the high priest and his family.

God tells Moses in Numbers 18:26 – 28, 
     Thus speak unto the Levites... when ye take of the children of Israel the tithes which I 
     have given you from them for your inheritance, then ye shall offer up an heave offering of 
     it for the LORD, even a tenth part of the tithe. 
     And this your heave offering shall be reckoned unto you, as though it were the grain of 
     the threshing floor, and as the fullness of the wine press (the vat where grapes are 
     crushed or the vat the fresh juice runs into). 
     Thus ye also shall offer an heave offering unto the LORD of all your tithes which ye
     receive of the children of Israel, and ye shall give thereof the LORD's heave offering to
     Aaron, the priest.

In the verses that follow, Numbers 18:29 and 30, God commands the Levites to offer the best of the gifts they received as a tithe. And He says again, as in verse 27, that the Levites tithe offering would be counted by Him as their part of “the increase of the threshing floor and... the increase of the wine press (the vat of grapes being crushed or the vat of fresh juice).”

The words “wine press” in verses 27 and 30 show that God was speaking of fresh juice.

The Feast in the Presence of God

Israel gathered at the place the Lord chose, or wherever the tabernacle was located. The people who brought the tithes, and the people who received the tithes rejoiced together because of the harvest and God's goodness to them. They ate some of the tithe in His presence as they celebrated with an enormous feast.

According to the verses in Deuteronomy 14, the families who lived near to the tabernacle brought their tithe of threshed grain, grape juice and fresh oil directly to the tabernacle. For those who lived far away God had a special plan. He told them they could sell their tithe. Then He said they should use the money to buy products ready to eat when they arrived at the tabernacle. In this way they could take part in the harvest feast. Most of the money they brought would be distributed among the Levites.

The Problem Verse

Now we come to the problem verse. It concerns those who sold their tithe at home and purchased food to eat at the harvest feast. While everyone else was eating and drinking the fresh produce of the tithe, verse 26 of Deuteronomy 14 says these Israelites could use their money to buy yayin and shekar and drink in front of God. Did this mean that they, and only they, of all the people, could drink intoxicating liquor before God?

Dr. Teachout says, “No,” and translates yayin and shekar in Deuteronomy 14:26 as satisfying grape juice. His reasons are based on evidence from the Scripture itself.

The Context

Since yayin is the name of the grape juice product ready for the consumer, there is no problem with the word yayin in Deuteronomy 14:26. But the Bible also includes shekar.

At this point we must take into consideration the context of the word we are studying. It is incorrect in word studies to force a word to mean the same thing in every context. Even though the word may usually have a certain meaning, it must harmonize or fit into each context where it is found. 3

The Related Word Shakar

When we studied the different contexts for shakar, we found that, even though it is often used with drunkenness, shakar has a basic meaning that is neutral. It means “drinking deeply” or “drinking to satisfaction.” That drinking is good or bad according to the drink. Since this is true, it is not surprising that shakar's related noun shekar could usually be a fermented drink, but also be a drink deeply satisfying but not fermented. 4 Since God completely approves of the shekar in Deuteronomy 14:26 it must be a deeply satisfying unfermented drink.

Fear and Rejoicing

God commanded the people to hold the harvest feast in great respect to Him... “that thou mayest learn to fear the LORD thy God always.” The word fear means reverential trust and the hatred of evil. He also told Israel to rejoice in His presence. Verse 26 sets no limit on the amount people from far away could drink. If they were drinking an alcoholic beverage it would have been impossible for them to fear God, hate evil and rejoice with a clear mind.

God's Law

It would have been against the law of God for the priestly Levites to join the people in the drinking of alcohol. 5 God had put Nadab and Abihu to death and warned the other priests about drinking alcohol when they were serving in His presence, Leviticus 10:9,10. Two times in Deuteronomy 14:22 – 26 the Bible says the people of Israel ate the harvest feast “before the Lord” or in His presence. God would have to change His character if He urged the common people in His presence to drink the alcohol He denied to the priests.

God's Character

“There is no way,” Dr. Teachout says, “to avoid totally a problem in this verse. Either shekar means something different than it normally does (yet in keeping with the basal meaning of the verbal root, shakar) or God is out of character. That is theologically impossible.” 6

Malachi 3:6 says God cannot change. If God approves of alcoholic shekar in Deuteronomy 14:26, when He clearly condemns it in other verses, He does change. But God does not lie and He cannot change. The problem, then, is with the word shekar. It must mean something different from its normal meaning of intoxicating drink. If God approves the drink it is not intoxicating.

Other Bible Verses

Another Bible passage also uses yayin and shekar to mean grape juice. In Deuteronomy 29:6 God reminds Israel,

     You have not eaten bread, nor have you drunk yayin and shekar (grape juice), in order
      that you might know that I am Yahweh your God.

God is talking about a meal. The several million people of Israel did not plant vineyards for grape juice or grain for bread for forty years. They did not have, God says, their bread and grape juice (yayin and shekar), the proper drink with a meal. Without their normal food supply, the people depended totally upon God. He showed them His faithfulness and power by providing manna in the desert.

Deuteronomy 29:5, along with verse 6, emphasizes that God, with miracles, provided for Israel's proper needs. He took care of food, drink and clothes. These verses from the New American Standard Bible are expanded by Dr. Teachout.

     And I have led you forty years in the wilderness; your clothes have not worn out on you,
     and your sandal has not worn out on your foot. You have not eaten (your normal fare of)
     bread, nor have you drunk (your normal delicious beverage of satisfying grape juice. I 
     have thus provided for your needs supernaturally), in order that you might know that I
     am Yahweh your God.

One other Bible verse shows that shekar sometimes means nonintoxicating drink. In this verse shekar is used alone. God tells Moses in Numbers 28:7 to pour out one-fourth of a hin of shekar (1 3/5 pint) with the continual burnt offering. When this law was first given in Exodus 29:40, the drink that God commanded Moses to use was yayin or grape juice. Since shekar is used in place of yayin in the same command, this shows us, first that shekar can mean exactly the same thing as yayin. Second, it shows us that logically, in line with the rest of Old Testament truth that condemns alcoholic drinks, shekar in this verse is grape juice. 7

Summary Answer to the Problem of Deuteronomy 14:26

God did not allow Israelites who had to travel to get to the tabernacle to drink alcoholic wine in His presence while everyone else drank fresh juice. All the evidence we have studied points to the fact that Deuteronomy 14:26 agrees with the rest of Scripture; it praises fresh grape juice.

Grape juice is not the usual meaning of shekar, but two other references from the law of Moses, Numbers 28:7 (with Exodus 29:40) and Deuteronomy 29:5 show that this can be its meaning. Also important is the fact that shekar's related verb shakar has the basic sense of “to drink deeply.” This thought harmonizes with the definition of “satisfying grape juice” for yayin and shekar in Deuteronomy 14.

We must remember that God carefully directed Israel to bring tirosh as the tithe of the vine. He spoke to the Levites about their tithe being the fullness of the wine press or juice vat. He pronounced the death penalty for the priests who drank alcohol in His presence. He required that all Israel be sober to rejoice in His presence as they feared Him always.

Deuteronomy 14:26 does not give anyone an excuse to drink alcoholic wine in God’s presence. Alcoholic wine is always a mocker and God always warns against it.

Deuteronomy 14:26, 29:5,6, and Numbers 28:7 studied with Exodus 29:40 are the three times in the Bible when shekar is not intoxicating.

VI. CLAIMS ABOUT SHEKAR IN DEUTERONOMY 14

Dr. Bacchiocchi agrees with Dr. Teachout that the drink, yayin and shekar in Deuteronomy 14:22 – 27, is grape juice. The word “strong” in the English translation of shekar, he writes, is not a part of the word itself. It is an added word and can give the wrong idea.8 He shows how those who believe in moderate drinking use Deuteronomy 14:23 and 26 as key verses to convince others that God approves the moderate drinking of alcohol.

     Verse 23: And thou shalt eat before the Lord... the tithe of thy corn (grain), of thy wine
     (tirosh) and of thine oil... that thou mayest learn to fear the Lord thy God always. 
     Verse 26: And thou shalt bestow that money for ... oxen, or for sheep or for wine 
     (yayin), or for strong drink (shekar)... and thou shalt eat there before the Lord thy
     God, and thou shalt rejoice....

The moderate drinkers combine verse 26 with part of verse 23. Then they claim, “Shekar was not only allowed for God's people, but it could be enjoyed in the presence of the Lord (verse 26), if partaken in the fear of God (verse 23).” 9

In answer to that claim, Dr. Bacchiocchi says that first, “that thou mayest learn to fear the Lord...” is found in verse 23 and refers directly to the tithe of grain, grape juice (tirosh), and oil also found in verse 23. It does not refer directly to the yayin and shekar of verse 26. And second, intoxicating drink is always condemned in the Bible, no matter what the amount. That means either that shekar in verse 26 is nonintoxicating shekar or the Scripture contradicts itself. 10

Some Conclusions about These Verses

Here are some of the conclusions Dr. Bacchiocchi draws about Deuteronomy 14:26.

     a) Deuteronomy 14:3 – 21 says the people were to be holy to the Lord. They had to
     stay away from anything unclean. This would mean that they could not freely drink 
     alcoholic drinks at a solemn harvest festival “before the Lord.”

     b) Verse 23 says the tithe should be fresh harvest produce. It is foolish to think that
     those who came from far away could drink fermented drink.

     c) The priests took part in the harvest feast and they could not drink alcohol.

     d) Shekar, like yayin, can mean fermented or unfermented drink. The context of
     Deuteronomy 14:26 shows that this verse is talking about unfermented drink.

VII. SHEKAR IN HEBREW POETRY IN THE BIBLE

Hebrew poetry uses parallelism—that is the words of two or more lines, written one after another, say the same thing, or the second line adds to the first, or the second line contrasts with the first. When two lines mean the same thing, the parallelism is called synonomous parallelism. For example, yayin (wine) in the first line and shekar (strong drink) in the second mean exactly the same thing. 11

Yayin and Shekar in Parallel Statements: Same Meaning

Proverbs 20:1 is a good example of parallel statements that have the same meaning. Young's Literal Translation of the Bible says,

Wine (yayin) is a mocker –
strong drink (shekar) is raging,
and any going astray in it is not wise.

Proverbs 31:4 – 6 is another Bible passage with parallel ideas. Yayin and shekar both mean intoxicating drink.

It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine (yayin);
nor for princes strong drink (shekar),
Lest they drink, and forget the law, and pervert the justice of any of the afflicted.
Give strong drink (shekar) unto him that is ready to perish,
and wine (yayin) unto those that are of heavy hearts (bitter of soul, or whose life is bitter).

In Isaiah 5:11 and 22, more poetry with parallel thoughts, God pronounces woe on the heroes or valiant men who get up early to follow shekar and stay up late until yayin inflames them. They are mighty to drink yayin and men of strength to mix shekar.

Isaiah 56:12 tells us how the drinkers encourage each other to get the wine (yayin) and fill themselves with strong drink (shekar). “Tomorrow will be like today. Yea, it will be greater by far!”

Isaiah 24:9, 28:7 and 29:9 are three more verses where yayin and shekar are exact synonyms in parallel statements. 12

Isaiah 24:9: They shall not drink wine (yayin) with a song;
strong drink (shekar) shall be bitter to those who drink it.

Isaiah 28:7 names shekar three times and yayin two times.

...but they also have erred through wine (yayin),
and through strong drink (shekar) are out of the way.
The priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink (shekar); 13
they are swallowed up of wine (yayin), they are out of the way through strong drink  (shekar), they err in vision, they stumble in judgment.

Isaiah 29:9 declares, “...they are drunk, but not with wine (yayin); they stagger, but not with strong drink (shekar).”

In all these Bible verses it is clear that yayin and shekar have exactly the same meaning in poetic texts that use synonymous parallelism. 14 They are both intoxicating drink.

God's Teaching in Poetry

It is easy to see in God's poetry that He strongly disapproves of drunkenness. But these verses teach much more than that: God disapproves of the drink that causes drunkenness.

The Teaching in Poetry in Proverbs

Proverbs 31:4 says, “It is not for kings to drink wine or for rulers to desire strong drink.” God is communicating His thinking to us. He doesn't like the drinking of, or the thirsting for, any amount of alcoholic drink.

God does say why He warns leaders not to drink any alcohol at all in Proverbs 31:5, “Lest they forget... and pervert the rights....” At the same time He is making a value judgment of the drink itself. It corrupts judgment and any amount displeases Him. Those who claim that they can drink some intoxicating drink before God will disapprove need to think this through. They can compare themselves to people who say they can sin for an unknown period of time or up to a certain amount before some trigger action suddenly offends a holy God.

Is the teaching of Proverbs 31:4,5 just for rulers? The ancient Hebrews did limit it to rulers, judges, teachers and others in authority. They recognized that this text prohibited even one drink. But the moral truth of these verses that alcoholic wine is evil in itself is for everyone, not just rulers. This truth is seen again in Proverbs 20:1.

Proverbs 20:1 is also talking about the drink itself. God declares that wine is a mocker and strong drink is raging. It is the wine that is bad. “Both the drinking of it and the problems resulting from such drinking,” Dr. Teachout says, “receive the divine value judgment: not wise.” In Proverbs to do something that is not wise is to sin.

The Jews did provide fermented wine for people who were perishing and whose lives were bitter as Proverbs 31:6 says. They gave it to those who were to die for their crimes by capital punishment. It is possible to see that God may allow the medicinal use of wine as an anesthetic. It is just as possible to see another main thought: the only proper use for any intoxicating drink is as a dulling agent for someone who has passed beyond all hope.

The Teaching in Poetry in Isaiah

The first three verses we have studied in Isaiah 5 and 56 tell about heroes at drinking. They are already under God's judgment. The last three verses, in Isaiah 24, 28 and 29, reveal God's anger at His drinking people.

Two Poetry Verses with a Different Pattern

Micah 2:11 and Psalm 69:12 are two verses found in poetry. The verses around them fit the pattern of parallelism we have studied before, but these verses do not. 15 In Micah 2:11 yayin and shekar are a hendiadys meaning intoxicating wine.

God accuses the people, “If a man, walking in the spirit and falsehood,
do lie, saying, I will prophesy unto thee of wine and strong drink (yayin and shekar);
 he shall even be the prophet of this people.”

Psalm 69:12 has the word shekar but yayin is left out. Dr. Teachout's translation is,

Those who sit in the city gate speak against me;
Yea I am the subject of the mocking songs of those who drink strong drink (shekar).16

In the King James Bible strong drink is “drunkards.” This Psalm is the Psalmist's complaint but it also tells us how Jesus Christ was treated by the people and how they rejected Him.

VIII. SHEKAR IN BOOKS OF HISTORY IN THE BIBLE

Shekar is used four times in the books of history in the Bible. Each time yayin is used with it, and together they mean intoxicating wine. We have already read three of the verses found in Judges 13:4,7,14, when we studied about Samson as a Nazarite.

The fourth verse is I Samuel 1:15. The High Priest accuses Hannah of praying while intoxicated. She answers him by saying, “I have not drunk intoxicating wine (yayin and shekar)....”

IX. A SUMMARY OF SHEKAR FROM LESSONS 7 AND 8

The word shekar appears twenty-three times in the Old Testament;

Twenty one out of 23 times it is used with yayin in a phrase, yayin and shekar.

Nineteen out of 21 times, yayin and shekar together is intoxicating wine.

The use of two nouns together, like yayin and shekar, to name one drink, is called a hendiadys. When yayin and shekar are together we think “intoxicating wine” except in two verses, Deuteronomy 14:26 and 29:6. In these verses the context shows that it is grape juice.

In poetry shekar and yayin mean the same thing, intoxicating drink, in parallel statements. The words “strong drink” are as good as any, Dr. Teachout says, to translate shekar.

Shekar is grape juice only three times— the two times it is used with yayin in Deuteronomy 14, and one of the two times when it is used alone, Numbers 28:7 In this verse shekar is grape juice for the daily continual burnt offering, .

Shekar is intoxicating the second time it is used alone. It is found with other Hebrew words that mean drunkards in Psalm 69:12,13.

There is no evidence that shekar was beer.

From the study of shekar and shakar one thing becomes very clear. The Old Testament is united in its testimony about alcoholic shekar: God totally disapproves of both the drink and also the results of drinking it – the drunkenness and the clouded judgment.

Endnotes

1. Dr. Robert Teachout, The Use of Wine in the Old Testament, Doctoral Dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1979, p.233.
2. Ibid., p.235. Israel followed a 7 year cycle. Two years they held a feast with all Israel together and the third year the tithe was given to the Levites without the trip to the tabernacle, Deuteronomy 14:28. This cycle of 2 years meeting together and one year at home was repeated. The seventh year the land rested, Leviticus 25:1-6.
3. Ibid., p.237. In a footnote Dr. Teachout mentions several Hebrew words where the normal meaning changes greatly because of the context. The verb that means “to sin” in the Qal stem can mean “to purify” in the Piel. Another verb in the Piel can mean “to throw stones at someone” or to “remove stones from a stony area.”
4. Ibid., p.238.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid., p.239.
8. Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, Wine in the Bible, Biblical Perspective, Berrien Springs, Michigan, 1989, p.229-233. Dr. Bacchiocchi states that some think Isaiah 24:9 could read “ sweet drink (shekar) shall be bitter” instead of “strong drink (shekar) shall be bitter.” John Kitto (1845) writes that shekar was sweet wine made alcoholic by being mingled with potent drugs. Robert Young in His Analytical Concordance of the Biblesays shekar is a beverage that is either fermented or unfermented. He defines shekar as a sweet drink which satiates or intoxicates. (The use of the word shekar changed over the years. Some information about shekar is based on historical records of early New Testament times instead of Old Testament days.) In many languages the word sugar comes from shekar.
9. Ibid., p.226.
10. Ibid.
11. Teachout, Use of Wine, p.241.
12. Ibid., p.243,244.
13. Ibid. The first sentence in the parallel construction has yayin and shekar in it and it is balanced by shekar used collectively in the next sentence. The last yayin and shekar balance each other in separate clauses.
14. Ibid., p.241,242.
15. Ibid., p.244.


 

   
 
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